By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — In the mid-1940s members of Tennessee Woman’s Missionary Union were facing a dilemma. They were unable to find adequate facilities to provide summer missions camps for their Royal Ambassadors and Girls in Action.
WMU youth worker Mrs. M. K. Cobble observed, “The burden of my heart is that, to date, we have no place to have our camps this summer. Due to summer schools and the remodeling program we cannot use Carson-Newman College (now University) again. We have made 10 contacts. Every door is closed” (from Give Me a Mountain: The Centennial History of Tennessee Woman’s Missionary Union by Rosalie Phelps, pages 65-68).
Then WMU President Mrs. C. D. Creasman appointed a committee to explore the possibility of establishing camps in the state. “We must have a place for our young people to meet,” she said.
“Sometimes, a look to the past clarifies the vision for the future,” said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “That need (described by Mrs. Cobble) breathed a vision that led to a purpose,” Davis said.
He noted that in 1947, Tennessee WMU proposed the idea for two Baptist camps (one in the east and one in the west) to messengers at the annual meeting in Chattanooga that year. “It launched the Tennessee Baptist Convention on a Great Commission journey,” Davis said.
Vickie Anderson, executive director of Tennessee WMU, noted that land was donated by two families in Newport for what became known as Camp Carson (now Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center) and land was purchased at Linden in Perry County for Camp Linden (now Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center).
On July 11, 1949, the first camps were held at Carson Springs, Anderson said. Due to rain delays, Camp Linden waited until the next year to open.
“While God only knows the actual numbers (since the two sites opened), thousands have come to know Jesus Christ and thousands have accepted the call to service in the kingdom,” Anderson said.
Sharon Tyler, a member of Brook Hollow Baptist Church in Nashville, served as a GA counselor for eight weeks in the summer of 1970. “It was one of the best summers of my life,” she recalled.
“I think many young girls and teenagers were given a heart for missions through the programs at the camps that summer,” she said.
Shawn Parker, the current executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, was introduced to camps at the age of 15 at Linden Valley. He recalled sharing his testimony with his youth group at the end of camp.
“As I look back, that probably was the moment when I recognized in concrete fashion that God was calling me to be a pastor,” he said.
Parker observed that the “baton is being passed to the next generation right now. It’s quite possible that the next Lottie Moon or Billy Graham, the great evangelist, are sitting in our camps today and are being guided by the leaders in those camps and the Holy Spirit is working to accomplish His eternal purpose.”
Thi Mitsamphanh is a former Tennessee Baptist pastor who now serves as a missionary in Bangkok, Thailand, with his family. He came to the United States with his family from Laos. He was provided an opportunity at age 13 to attend All Nations Camp at Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center. “It was that week that I gave my life to Christ,” he said.
“That moment changed my life forever,” Mitsamphanh affirmed.
The mission continues
In the spring of 2021, the directors of Tennessee Baptist Mission Board approved nearly $6 million in renovation and new construction projects at both conference centers. The project includes renovation of all hotel guest rooms and the refurbishment of the hotel lobbies.
The project at Linden Valley will include “decommissioning” nearly 260 beds in the older lodges and replacing them with new cabin “villages” set among the trees and shoreline of the Buffalo River.
The project will consist of four villages, each with its own meeting space (called the Town Hall) and each village will have four cabins with 16 beds, each with private showers and bathroom facilities, according to information provided to TBMB directors and leaders of Tennessee WMU. Each “village” is expected to cost $1.5 million.
“As the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board and Tennessee WMU together celebrate the upcoming 75th anniversary of the conference centers in 2024, we want to re-ignite the partnership and vision that gave birth to the camps in 1949 to propel us to an even brighter future to reach new generations with the love of Jesus Christ,” Anderson said.
To commemorate the partnership, the Tennessee WMU Executive Board voted at their April 1 meeting to approve a giving challenge goal of $150,000 toward the costs of Legacy Hall (the town hall in the first village). During the April 26 TBMB directors meeting, Anderson and Tennessee WMU President Yolanda Heuser presented a gift of $12,915 toward the project.
“I believe we still must have a place for Tennessee Baptists to gather for camps, retreats and other events in a camping and conference center setting,” Anderson said.
Davis agreed. “Today, Linden Valley and Carson Springs Baptist Conference Centers continue their commitment to helping people of all ages embrace spiritual transformation in a distraction-free environment. The proof is in the legacy.”
Mark Proctor, associate administrator for the TBMB, noted that “every organization reaches an inflection point — that moment when the momentum changes, the mission takes on a new, critical tenor and non-essentials pass away.
In those moments, the legacy becomes more important than ever. Tennessee Baptist Conference Centers are at that point, standing on the firm foundation of a 75 year-old vision with a renewed vigor for moving forward into another 75 years of ministry,” he said.
“I can think of no time when the potential impact and growth opportunities for our camps and conference centers has been greater. Tennessee, as one of the fastest growing states in the U.S., is watching as the ‘nations’ arrive on our doorstep. Carson Springs and Linden Valley are the perfect spots to introduce these nations to the rivers and the mountains of Tennessee.”
Proctor acknowledged he “is enamored with the clear vision of the renewed partnership with WMU — We Must Have a Place. That was the vision of WMU 75 years ago and today, hundreds of thousands of guests later, the vision marches merrily on.
“We must have a place for our churches and guests — irresistible places with impeccable service for those who come, places of unforgettable experiences and unprecedented transformation and places where the stories and the memories perpetuate themselves for future generations.”
Davis reiterated that “any way you slice it, Tennessee is a mission field. Carson Springs and Linden Valley have been and will continue to be a gateway for reaching the nations for Christ both here and around the globe.”
In the months leading to the anniversary, Davis encouraged Tennessee Baptists to visit the camps and see the ministries for themselves, to pray for the staff and those who will be attending camps and to invest in the future by contributing to the capital campaign for the conference centers.
“Let’s faithfully carry the baton that has been passed to us so that we might pass these great camps to future generations,” Davis said. B&R